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George Eliot. Blind, Mathilde, 1841–1896.
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page: 43
page: 44

CHAPTER IV.

TRANSLATION OF STRAUSS AND FEUERBACH.—TOUR ON THE CONTINENT.

MISS BRABANT'S marriage to Mr. Charles Hennel occurred some months after this excursion to Tenby. In the meanwhile it was settled that Miss Evans should continue her translation of Dr. Strauss's Leben Jesu. Thus her first introduction to literature was in a sense accidental. The result proved her admirably fitted for the task; for her version of this searching and voluminous work remains a masterpiece of clear nervous English, at the same time faithfuly rendering the spirit of the original. But it was a vast and laborious undertaking, requiring a large share of patience, will, and energy, quite apart fron the necessary mental qualifications. On this occasion, to fit herself more fully for her weighty task Marian taught herself a considerable amount of Hebrew. But she groaned, at times, under the pressure of the toil which had necessarily to be endured feeling tempted to relinquish what must often have seemed almost intolerable drudgery. The active interest and encouragement of her friends, however tided her over these moments of discouragement, and after three years of assiduous application, the translation was finally completed, and brought out by Dr. page: 45 (then Mr.) John Chapman in 1846. It is probably safe to assume that the composition of none of her novels cost George Eliot half the effort and toil which this translation had done. Yet so badly is this kind of literary work remunerated, that twenty pounds was the sum paid for what had cost three years of hard labour!

Indeed, by this time, most of the twelve friends who had originally guaranteed the sum necessary for the translation and publication of the ‘Life of Jesus,’ had conveniently forgotten the matter; and had it not been for the generosity of Mr. Joseph Parkes, who volunteered to advance the necessary funds, who knows how long the MS. translation might have lain dormant in a drawer at Foleshill? It no sooner saw the light, however, than every one recognised the exceptional merits of the work. And for several years afterwards Miss Evans continued to be chiefly known as the translator of Strauss's Leben Jesu.

Soon after relieving Miss Brabant from the task of translation, Miss Evans went to stay for a time with her friend's father, Dr. Brabant, who sadly felt the loss of his daughter's intelligent and enlivening companionship. No doubt the society of this accomplished scholar, described by Mr. Grote as “a vigorous self-thinking intellect,” was no less congenial than instructive to his young companion; while her singular mental acuteness and affectionate womanly ways were most grateful to the lonely old man. There is something very attractive in this episode of George Eliot's life. It recalls a frequently recurring situation in her novels, particularly that touching one of the self-renouncing devotion page: 46 with which the ardent Romola throws herself into her afflicted father's learned and recondite pursuits.

There exists a letter written to an intimate friend in 1846, soon after the translation of Strauss was finished, which, I should say, already shows the future novelist in embryo. In this delightfully humorous mystification of her friends, Miss Evans pretends that, to her gratification, she has actually had a visit from a real live German professor, whose musty person was encased in a still mustier coat. This learned personage has come over to England with the single purpose of getting his voluminous writings translated into English. There are at least twenty volumes, all unpublished, owing to the envious machinations of rival authors, none of them treating of anything more modern than Cheops, or the invention of the hieroglyphics. The respectable professor's object in coming to England is to secure a wife and translator in one. But though, on inquiry, he finds that the ladies engaged in translation are legion, they mostly turn out to be utterly incompetent, besides not answering to his requirements in other respects; the qualifications he looks for in a wife, besides a thorough acquaintance with English and German, being personal ugliness and a snug little capital, sufficient to supply him with a moderate allowance of tobacco and Schwarzbier, after defraying the expense of printing his books. To find this phœnix among women he is sent to Coventry on all hands.

In Miss Evans, so she runs on, the aspiring professor finds his utmost wishes realised, and so proposes to her on the spot; thinking that it may be her last chance, she accepts him with equal celerity, and her page: 47 father, although strongly objecting to a foreigner, is induced to give his consent for the same reason. The lady's only stipulation is that her future husband shall take her out of England, with its dreary climate and drearier inhabitants. This being settled, she invites her friends to come to her wedding, which is to take place next week.

This lively little jeu d'esprit is written in the wittiest manner, and one cannot help fancying that this German Dryasdust contained the germ of one of her very subtlest masterpieces in characterisation, that of the much-to-be-pitied Casaubon, the very Sysiphus of authors. In the lady, too, willing to marry her parchment-bound suitor for the sake of co-operating in his abstruse mental labours, we have a faint adumbration of the simple-minded Dorothea.

But these sudden stirrings at original invention did not prevent Miss Evans from undertaking another task, similar to her last, if not so laborious. She now set about translating Ludwig Feuerbach's Wesen des Christenthums. This daring philosopher, who kept aloof from professional honours, and dwelt apart in a wood, that he might be free to handle questions of theology and metaphysics with absolute fearlessness, had created a great sensation by his philosophical criticism in Germany. Unlike his countrymen, whose writings on these subjects are usually enveloped in such an impenetrable mist that their most perilous ideas pass harmlessly over the heads of the multitude, Feuerbach, by his keen incisiveness of language and luminousness of exposition, was calculated to bring his meaning home to the average reader. Mr. Garnett's account of the ‘Essence of Christianity’ in page: 48 the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica,’ admirably concise as it is, may be quoted here, as conveying in the fewest words the gist of this “famous treatise, where Feuerbach shows that every article of Christian belief corresponds to some instinct or necessity of man's nature, from which he infers that it is the creation and embodiment of some human wish, hope, or apprehension.... Following up the hint of one of the oldest Greek philosophers, he demonstrates that religious ideas have their counterparts in human nature, and assumes that they must be its product.”

The translation of the ‘Essence of Christianity’ was also published by Mr. Chapman in 1854. It appeared in his ‘Quarterly Series,’ destined “to consist of works by learned and profound thinkers, embracing the subjects of theology, philosophy, biblical criticism, and the history of opinion.” Probably because her former translation had been so eminently successful, Miss Evans received fifty pounds for her present work. But there was no demand for it in England, and Mr. Chapman lost heavily by its publication.

About the same period Miss Evans also translated Spinoza's De Deo for the benefit of an inquiring friend. But her English version of the ‘Ethics’ was not undertaken till the year 1854, after she had left her home at Foleshill. In applying herself to the severe labour of rendering one philosophical work after another into English, Miss Evans, no doubt, was bent on elucidating for herself some of the most vital problems which engage the mind when once it has shaken itself free from purely traditional beliefs, rather than on securing for herself any pecuniary advantages. But her admirable translations attracted page: 49 the attention of the like-minded, and she became gradually known to some of the most distinguished men of the time.

Unfortunately her father's health now began to fail, causing her no little pain and anxiety. At some period during his illness she stayed with him in the Isle of Wight, for in a letter to Mrs. Bray, written many years afterwards, she says, “The ‘Sir Charles Grandison’ you are reading must be the series of little fat volumes you lent me to carry to the Isle of Wight, where I read it at every interval when my father did not want me, and was sorry that the long novel was not longer. It is a solace to hear of any one's reading and enjoying Richardson. We have fallen on an evil generation who would not read ‘Clarissa’ even in an abridged form. The French have been its most enthusiastic admirers, but I don't know whether their present admiration is more than traditional, like their set phrases about their own classics.”

During the last year of her father's life his daughter was also in the habit of reading Scott's novels aloud to him for several hours of each day; she must thus have become deeply versed in his manner of telling the stories in which she continued to delight all her life; and in speaking of the widening of our sympathies which a picture of human life by a great artist is calculated to produce, even in the most trivial and selfish, she gives as an instance Scott's description of Luckie Mucklebackit's cottage, and his story of the ‘Two Drovers.’

But a heavy loss now befell Marian Evans in the death of her father, which occurred in 1849. Long afterwards nothing seemed to afford consolation to page: 50 her grief. For eight years these two had kept house together, and the deepest mutual affection had always subsisted between them. Marian ever treasured her father's memory. As George Eliot she loved to recall in her works everything associated with him in her childhood; those happy times when, standing between her father's knees, she used to be driven by him to “outlying hamlets, whose groups of inhabitants were as distinctive to my imagination as if they belonged to different regions of the globe.” Miss Evans, however, was not suffered to mourn uncomforted. The tender friends who cared for her as a sister, now planned a tour to the Continent in hopes that the change of scene and associations would soften her grief.

So they started on their travels, going to Switzerland and Italy by the approved route, which in those days was not so hackneyed as it now is. To so penetrating an observer as Miss Evans there must have been an infinite interest in this first sight of the Continent. But the journey did not seem to dispel her grief, and she continued in such very low spirits that Mrs. Bray almost regretted having taken her abroad so soon after her bereavement. Her terror, too, at the giddy passes which they had to cross, with precipices yawning on either hand—so that it seemed as if a false step must send them rolling into the abyss—was so overpowering that the sublime spectacle of the snow-clad Alps seemed comparatively to produce but little impression on her. Her moral triumph over this constitutional timidity, when any special occasion arose, was all the more remarkable. One day when crossing the Col de Balme from Martigny to Chamounix, one of the side-saddles was found to page: 51 be badly fitted, and would keep turning round, to the risk of the rider, if not very careful, slipping off at any moment. Marian, however, insisted on having this defective saddle in spite of the protest of Mrs. Bray, who felt quite guilty whenever they came to any perilous places.

How different is this timidity from George Sand's hardy spirit of enterprise! No one who has read that captivating book, her Lettres d'un Voyageur, can forget the great Frenchwoman's description of a Swiss expedition, during which, while encumbered with two young children, she seems to have borne all the perils, fatigues, and privations of a toilsome ascent with the hardihood of a mountaineer. But it should not be forgotten that, although Miss Evans was just then in a peculiarly nervous and excitable condition, and her frequent fits of weeping were a source of pain to her anxious fellow-travellers. She had, in fact, been so assiduous in attendance on her sick father, that she was physically broken down for a time. Under these circumstances an immediate return to England seemed unadvisable, and, when her friends started on their homeward journey, it was decided that Marian should remain behind at Geneva.

Here, amid scenes so intimately associated with genius—where the “self-torturing sophist, wild Rousseau,” placed the home of his ‘Nouvelle Héoïse,’ and the octogenarian Voltaire spent the serene Indian summer of his stirring career; where Gibbon wrote his ‘History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire;’ where Byron and Shelley sought refuge from the hatred of their countrymen, and which Madame de Staël complainingly exchanged for her beloved Rue du Bac—here the future author of page: 52 ‘Romola’ and ‘Middlemarch’ gradually recovered under the sublime influences of Nature's healing beauties.

For about eight months Miss Evans lived at a boarding-house, “Le Plongeau,” near Geneva. But she was glad to find a quieter retreat in the family of an artist, M. d'Albert, becoming much attached to him and his wife. Established in one of the lofty upper stories of this pleasant house, with the blue shimmering waters of the lake glancing far below, and the awful heights of Mont Blanc solemnly dominating the entire landscape, she not only loved to prosecute her studies, but, in isolation from mankind, to plan glorious schemes for their welfare. During this stay she drank deep of Rousseau, whose works, especially Les Confessions, made an indelible impression on her. And when inciting a friend to study French, she remarked that it was worth learning that language, if only to read him. At the same period Marian probably became familiarised with the magnificent social utopias of St. Simon, Proudhon, and other French writers. Having undergone a kind of mental revolution herself not so long ago, she must have felt some sympathy with the thrilling hopes of liberty which had agitated the states of Western Europe in 1849. But, as I have already pointed out, her nature had conservative leanings. She believed in progress only as the result of evolution, not revolution. And in one of her most incisive essays, entitled ‘The National History of German Life,’ she finely points out the “notable failure of revolutionary attempts conducted from the point of view of abstract democratic and socialistic theories.” In the same article she draws a striking parallel between the page: 53 growth of language and that of political institutions, contending that it would be as unsatisfactory to “construct a universal language on a rational basis”—one that had “no uncertainty, no whims of idiom, no cumbrous forms, no fitful shimmer of many-hued significance, no hoary archaisms ‘familiar with forgotten years’”—as abruptly to alter forms of government which are nothing, in fact, but the result of historical growth, systematically embodied by society.

Besides the fascinations of study, and the outward glory of nature, the charm of social intercourse was not wanting to this life at Geneva. In M. D'Albert, a very superior man, gentle, refined, and of unusual mental attainments, she found a highly desirable daily companion. He was an artist by profession, and it is whispered that he suggested some of the traits in the character of the delicate-minded Philip Wakem in the ‘Mill on the Floss.’ The only portrait in oils which exists of George Eliot is one painted by M. D'Albert at this interesting time of her life. She inspired him, like most people who came into personal contact with her, with the utmost admiration and regard, and, wishing to be of some service, he escorted Miss Evans to England on her return thither. Curiously enough, M. D'Albert subsequently translated one of her works, probably ‘Adam Bede,’ without in the least suspecting who its real author was.

It is always a shock when vital changes have occurred in one's individual lot to return to a well-known place, after an absence of some duration, to find it wearing the same unchangeable aspect. One expects somehow that fields and streets and houses page: 54 would show some alteration corresponding to that within ourselves. But already from a distance the twin spires of Coventry, familiar as household words to the Warwickshire girl, greeted the eyes of the returning traveller. In spite of all love for her native spot of earth, this was a heavy time to Marian Evans. Her father was dead, the home where she had dwelt as mistress for so many years broken up, the present appearing blank and comfortless, the future uncertain and vaguely terrifying. The question now was where she should live, what she should do, to what purposes turn the genius whose untried and partially unsuspected powers were darkly agitating her whole being.

As has been already said, Marian Evans had a highly complex nature, compounded of many contradictory impulses, which, though gradually brought into harmony as life matured, were always pulling her, in those days, in different directions. Thus, though she possessed strong family affections, she could not help feeling that to go and take up her abode in the house of some relative, where life resolved itself into a monotonous recurrence of petty considerations, something after the Glegg pattern, would be little short of crucifixion to her, and, however deep her attachment for her native soil may have been, she yet sighed passionately to break away from its associations, and to become “a wanderer and a pilgrim on the face of the earth.”

For some little time after her return from abroad Marian took up her residence with her brother and his family. But the children who had toddled hand-in-hand in the fields together had now diverged so widely that no memories of a mutual past could page: 55 bridge over the chasm that divided them. Under these circumstances the family at Rosehill pressed her to make their home permanently hers, and for bout a year, from 1850 to 1851, she became the member of a household in fullest sympathy with her. Here Mr. Bray's many-sided mental activity and genial brightness of disposition, and his wife's exquisite goodness of heart, must have helped to soothe and cheer one whose delicately strung nature was just then nearly bending under the excessive strain of thought and feeling she had gone through. One person, indeed, was so struck by the grave sadness generally affecting her, that it seemed to him as if her coming took all the sunshine out of the day. But whether grave or gay, whether meditative or playful, her conversation exercised a spell over all who came within its reach.

In the pleasant house at Rosehill distinguished guests were constantly coming and going, so that there was no lack of the needed intellectual friction supplied by clever and original talk. Here in a pleasant garden, planted with rustling acacia trees, and opening on a wide prospect of richly-wooded, undulating country, with the fitful brightness of English skies overhead, and a smooth-shaven lawn to walk or recline upon, many were the topics discussed by men who had made, or were about to make, their mark. Froude was known there. George Combe discussed with his host the principles of phrenology, at that time claiming “its thousands of disciples.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, on a lecturing tour in this country, while on a brief visit, made Marian's acquaintance, and was observed by Mrs. Bray engaged in eager talk with her. Suddenly she page: 56 saw him start. Something said by this quiet, gentle-mannered girl had evidently given him a shock of surprise. Afterwards, in conversation with her friends, he spoke of her “great calm soul.” This is no doubt an instance of the intense sympathetic adaptiveness of Miss Evans. If great, she was not by any means calm at this period, but inwardly deeply perturbed, yet her nature, with subtlest response, reflected the transcendental calm of the philosopher when brought within his atmosphere.

George Dawson, the popular lecturer, and Mr. Flower, were more intimately associated with the Rosehill household. The latter, then living at Stratford-on-Avon, where he was wont to entertain a vast number of people, especially Americans, who make pilgrimages to Shakespeare's birthplace, is known to the world as the benevolent denouncer of “bits and bearing-reins.” One day this whole party went to hear George Dawson, who had made a great sensation at Birmingham, preach one of his thrilling sermons from the text “And the common people heard him gladly.” George Eliot, alluding to these days as late as 1876, says, in a letter to Mrs. Bray:

“George Dawson was strongly associated for me with Rosehill, not to speak of the General Baptist Chapel, where we all heard him preach for the first time (to us).... I have a vivid recollection of an evening when Mr. and Mrs. F— dined at your house with George Dawson, when he was going to lecture at the Mechanics' Institute, and you felt compassionately towards him, because you thought the rather riotous talk was a bad preface to his lecture. We have a Birmingham friend, whose acquaintance we made many years ago in Weimar, and from him page: 57 I have occasionally had some news of Mr. Dawson. I feared, what you mention, that his life has been a little too strenuous in these latter years.”

On the evening alluded to in this letter Mr. Dawson was dining at Mrs. Bray's house before giving, his lecture on ‘John Wesley,’ at the Mechanics' Institute. His rich sarcasm and love of fun had exhilarated the whole company, and not content with merely “riotous talk,” George Dawson and Mr. Flower turned themselves into lions and wild cats for the amusement of the children, suddenly pouncing out from under the table-cloth, with hideous roarings and screechings, till the hubbub became appalling, joined to the delighted half-frightened exclamations of the little ones. Mr. Dawson did the lions, and Mr. Flower, who had made personal acquaintance with the wild cats in the backwoods of America, was inimitable in their peculiar pounce and screech.

Thus amid studies and pleasant friendly intercourse did the days pass at Rosehill. Still Marian Evans was restless, tormented, frequently in tears, perhaps unconsciously craving a wider sphere, and more definitely recognised position. However strenuously she, at a maturer time of life, inculcated the necessity of resignation, she had not then learned to resign herself. And now a change was impending—a change which, fraught with the most important consequences, was destined to give a new direction to the current of her life. Dr. John Chapman invited her to assist him in the editorship of the Westminster Review, which passed at that time into his hands from John Mill. They had already met, when Marian was passing through London on her way to the Continent, on some matter of business or other connected with page: 58 one of her translations. Dr. Chapman's proposition was accepted; and although Marian suffered keenly from the wrench of parting with her friends, the prompting to work out her powers to the full overcame the clinging of affection, and in the spring of 1851 she left Rosehill behind her and came to London.

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